Monthly Archives: June 2005

a researcher-practitioner meeting

Yesterday, I spent an interesting day talking to some people who work in the world of public broadcasting about a project to produce high-quality news shows for use in high schools. A lot of the discussion was about how young people might contribute to the shows as well as use them.

Today is the second annual Researcher & Practitioner Conference of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. That’s a mouthful. It’s also an interesting and unusual project. Last year, we convened a bunch of people who organize citizens’ deliberations at a human scale–in towns and cities. We also invited some scholars who study the process of deliberation. The whole group spent two days developing a shared research agenda and planning some valuable research projects that could be conducted by teams of scholars and practitioners. Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation, we had more than $100,000 to allocate (through a competitive process) to teams that formed at the conference.

This is the second year, so we will be hearing reports from the teams that received funding. We will also revise our research agenda and allocate another batch of funds from Hewlett. As a by-product of these conferences, I believe we are strengthening a network that consists of academics and practical folks–something that’s not nearly as common as it should be.

wealth-building strategies for communities

Yesterday, my colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Democracy Collaborative unveiled a new website called Community It contains a mass of practical information about alternatives to the standard business corporation, including “community development corporations (CDCs), community development financial institutions (CDFIs), employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), community land trusts (CLTs), cooperatives, and social enterprise.” Gar Alperovitz, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, and other Maryland colleagues have shown that these wealth-generating organizations are rapidly growing and are often highly efficient and sustainable. Alperovitz also has a new book on the subject, which has been excerpted in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly (a journal produced by my shop).

These are my two favorite arguments for expanding alternatives to standard corporations:

1) The traditional approach to equity–taxing and spending after the fact–has encountered strong popular opposition in all Western democracies. Besides, it makes the recipients of government aid dependent on the state. Wealth-generation is a preferable strategy for both political and substantive reasons.

2) Alternative economic institutions like CDCs and co-ops are more rooted in communities, less able to move their investments. One of the biggest weaknesses of democracy today is the mobility of capital. As Alperovitz notes in the excerpt, a corporation can influence political decisions in multiple ways, including the “implicit or explicit threat of withdrawing its plants, equipment, and jobs from specific locations.” Besides, “in the absence of an alternative, the economy as a whole depends on the viability and success of its most important economic actor–a reality that commonly forces citizen and politican alike to respond to corporate demands.”

If there is no alternative to the standard corporation, then democracies really must do what firms want. Trying to restrict capital flows simply violates the laws of the market and will impose steep costs. In the market we have, it is not corrupt when democracies favor corporations; it’s just realistic. However, Alperovitz and his colleagues are showing that there is an alternative to the corporation. It’s possible to increase the wealth of people in poor communities by creating economically efficient organizations that are tied to places.

profound in their superficiality

While I was waiting for take-out food yesterday, I heard a talking head on what appeared to be a news show announce that the Michael Jackson trial was “without question the trial of the decade so far, and therefore of the century.” I can actually think of some other contenders for that title. For example:

  • The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, billionaire chairman of Yukos, which marked the transition in Russia from a kleptocratic market system to a quasi-fascist regime run by spies.
  • The trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of 66 counts of war crimes during a conflict that lasted eight years and directly involved the US as well as many other countries; those charges include genocide and crimes against humanity.
  • Multiple trials before the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, leading so far to verdicts in the cases of one Prime Minister, four Ministers, one Prefect, and five Bourgmestres (among others)–all alleged to have committed genocide in 1994.
  • Bush v. Gore, 531 US 98 (2000), which gave us the president we have today.
  • The United States v. Philip Morris, Inc. et al., originally a $280 billion lawsuit against the whole tobacco industry, reduced last week to a $10 billion suit after the Justice Department suddenly lowered its requested penalty by about 92%.
  • Arthur Andersen, LLP v US, the Enron-related criminal case that destroyed the major accounting firm, only to be overturned by the Supreme Court last week.
  • Any other suggestions for the top ten?

    on spending for schools and the idea of “root causes”

    I mentioned last week that Rethinking Schools is a fine publication. The current issue on small schools is full of information and insights. For example, Wayne Au makes the point that small institutions are at a disadvantage under No Child Left Behind, because they have so few students that they will see big random swings in their annual test scores–and failure to improve their mean scores every year leads to sanctions. In general, the magazine is useful as a distillation of progressive thinking about education. I endorse most of its content, but I want to register some dissents, because I think the way forward for the left is to criticize our traditional ideas and develop new ones.

    Reflecting traditional left-of-center ideology, several contributors to Rethinking Schools stress that creating smaller high schools–even if it’s a good idea–can’t solve the “root causes” of society’s problems, which include poverty and racism. Now, I agree completely with Craig Gordon that it is unjust for a single corporate CEO in his city to be paid as much as 600 new teachers. But I’m not at all sure that it’s wise to treat economic inequality as the “root” issue, while viewing such matters as the size and structure of schools as superficial.

    There is presumably a vicious cycle in which poverty and racism contribute to poor educational outcomes (and also to crime and morbidity); low-income communities receive substandard government services; and problems like under-education, disease, and crime generate and preserve poverty. If this vicious cycle exists, then we ought to intervene wherever we think we’ll have the most impact. For example, it appears that cities can reduce crime by changing their policing strategies, even when the poverty rate remains constant. In turn, lower crime rates should encourage economic investment and growth in urban neighborhoods. So the liberal nostrum that poverty is the “root cause of crime” was at least partly a tactical mistake.

    The traditional mechanism for increasing equality is after-the-fact. Once people have obtained their incomes in the marketplace, we tax them progressively and spend the proceeds on social programs. I think our tax system should be more progressive, because everyone agrees we have growing needs (including the federal entitlement programs and interest payments on the national debt); we are not meeting those needs; and the only fair way to increase federal income is to raise taxes on wealthy people. But there is no clear political strategy for increasing equity through redistribution. Nor will poorer Americans automatically benefit from more spending in sectors like education.

    The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that per-pupil spending on public school students increased by 24 percent, adjusting for inflation, between 1990 and 2002. That is a big increase that enables us to test the proposition that more education spending would be better for the least advantaged America. I see four possibilities …

    1) The new money has purchased substantial improvements in educational outcomes for all Americans. That would counter the angry and sad rhetoric of Rethinking Schools. However, it would support the case for even more spending.

    2) The money has not obtained improvements because it has not been well spent; that would underline the importance of institutional reform.

    3) The money has been spent on kids who were better off to start with; hence the outcomes of poor kids did not improve. I find this story unlikely, given the recent pressure for equity. But it is possible.

    4) The Department of Education is wrong to claim a 24% real increase. That would be a scandal, and it seems implausible.

    I don’t know which of these four hypotheses is correct, but much depends on the answer. I intend to keep an open mind about education spending until I know more. Meanwhile, I have the feeling that Senator Obama was right when he said at a commencement address last week: “We’ll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs.”

    policy analysis, for undergrads

    I have an opportunity to teach a special undergraduate seminar next spring. I’m not sure if I’ll accept, because it would mean doing less of something else. However, it’s fun to think about. I’m imagining that students would spend the whole semester producing background materials about k-12 education in Prince George’s County, MD. The materials would be published on a new part of the Prince George’s Commons website to accompany an online public deliberation about local education. The students would collect such useful and relevant background as:

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